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Paynesville Press - December 3, 2003

Stearns County Board discusses jail overcrowding

By Michael Jacobson

The Stearns County Board of Commissioners took the following actions at their meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 25.

*The board heard from the Community Corrections Department regarding a report recently completed by two national consultants who did an assessment of the county's justice system in an effort to come up with long-term solutions to the jail overcrowding problem. The consultants visited Stearns County at the end of October.

After meeting with the county board, county administration, sheriff, jail staff, local police chiefs, county attorney, public defenders, judges, and corrections staff, they identified problems, trends, and possible solutions.

One interesting trend, they noted, is that the county's population grew 18 percent in the past 15 years and arrests grew by 26 percent, yet the jail population went up 208 percent. This indicates the crime rate is not directly causing the overcrowding problem. A 1995 report anticipated that by 2015 the Stearns County jail would have 158 inmates, but already in 2003 the jail has surpassed that number and houses 159 inmates.

While the County recently started double bunking, the strategy of continuing to add more beds is not sustainable in the long term.

Basically, the consultants' report shows the entire justice system is stressed. Offices are overworked and understaffed, and the jail is the first place to feel the pressure.

Budget cutbacks are hurting the system even more. The state's plan to shift prisoners to county jails is also overloading the system; Stearns County currently has 13 state inmates, and the state is considering a change in this policy to add even more prisoners to county jails. Interestingly, statistics show in years past that one-third of the county's jail population was awaiting trial; today that number stands at two-thirds.

This overloaded system, the consultants pointed out, can cause breakdowns and errors, such as cases falling through the cracks as a larger number of people fail to appear in court, pay their fees, etc.

Another problem identified by the consultants is that the purpose of the jail needs to be identified. Is it to detain people the community is afraid of or is it an automatic source of punishment? Is the inmate being held because they need help or because no one really knows what else to do with them?

For example, they questioned whether inmates on work release really need to be taking up scarce jail space. They pointed out that maybe other resources such as electronic monitoring might be more useful.

Recommendations from the consultants included: form a committee to implement system changes, use data and develop information that could be used to analyze problems and develop policies, define the purpose of the jail, manage the workload, and think like a business (How much money and staff time is it worth to collect a $50 fee?).

The National Institute of Corrections awarded Stearns County a grant to study the jail-crowding problem. This grant allowed the county to bring in the two national consultants.

*The board was informed that the county's radon testing program is a success so far.

Stearns County Environmental Services Department has given out free radon testing kits to residents the past two years and will do so again this coming year. Of the over 700 homes in Stearns County tested for radon through this program the past two years, results showed 50 percent had levels at or above what is recommended.

Radon is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that seeps through the ground and into homes through the basement. It's the second leading cause of lung cancer. In the United States, one in 16 households has radon levels at or above the recommended point; in Minnesota that number stands at one in three. In Stearns County, radon is especially prevalent because of the large amount of granite, in which radon is a naturally occurring element.

Test kits will be given out again in January 2004 free of charge on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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